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Time and space:

A decade after fatal mission, film covers Israeli astronaut’s legacy

By Maxine Dovere/JNS.org

IIan Ramon

IIan Ramon

Dan Cohen describes Ilan Ramon, the first and only Israeli astronaut, as “a man used to rising to the occasion.” On Jan. 31 at 9 p.m., “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope” — a documentary directed by Cohen—will air on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Ramon’s death. “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope,” was produced by Christopher G. Cowen with Executive Producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, and directed by Cohen for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Israel sent one of its best on NASA’s fatal Columbia mission: Israel Air Force (IAF) Colonel Ramon was 46, an engineer, a pilot, married and the father of four. As a combat pilot, he was an integral part of the 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. He trained for Columbia at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.
Ramon, one of the mission’s seven casualties, is the only non-American to receive the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor (awarded posthumously). He was chosen to be a NASA astronaut in 1997. By 1998, he had begun a rigorous, five-year training program.
Ramon considered himself a representative of all Jews and all Israelis. Although a secular Jew, as the first Israeli astronaut he recognized the importance of maintaining Jewish identity and unity.
“I am the son of a Holocaust survivor,” he once told Israel Radio. “I carry on the suffering of the Holocaust generation, proof that despite all the horror they went through, we’re going forward.” Ramon asked Mission Commander Rick Husband to provide kosher meals on board Columbia and received rabbinical guidance for Shabbat observance in space.
The Israeli astronaut carried a miniature Torah scroll saved from the Holocaust into space. The scroll had been given to a boy who celebrated his bar mitzvah trapped in the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The rabbi who had smuggled the Torah into the camp did not survive; the boy, the scroll — the rabbi’s admonition to tell the world what happened in that place and the boy’s promise — did. Dr. Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, that bar mitzvah boy, became a physicist and was Israel’s lead scientist supporting Ramon on the ground. During their work together, Ramon learned the story of the scroll. When he returned to Houston, he asked permission to take the tiny Torah saved “from the depths of Hell to the heights of space.”
“Ilan felt Yoya’s promise deep within his heart and carried it with him deep into space,” Cohen said. “Keeping the promise is an important part of the mission of this film.”
Overall, making the film took the full 10 years since the Columbia tragedy. “We had to wait for Rona (Ramon’s widow) to be ready,” Cohen said. “Raising money was also difficult.”
Space Shuttle Columbia, Mission STS-107, launched Jan. 16, 2003. For 16 days, every aspect of the flight and its scheduled experiments was considered fully successful. But as the crew prepared for landing, Columbia exploded and disintegrated. Little was left, either human or material.  Among the objects that did survive was the in-flight diary of Ramon, virtually intact, still legible.
“I felt that I am truly living in space,” he wrote. “I have become a man who lives and works in space.

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